12 PENTECOST - PROPER XVI - A - 17 MATTHEW 16.13-20
Obviously, they had heard of the miraculous feeding and of His ability to heal, the most dreaded of diseases now they wanted him to perform a sign for them. Jesus refuses. Taking his disciples aside, he warns them of the “leaven” of the Pharisees and the scribes, meaning their teaching. It is after all of this that Jesus and his disciples retreat into the district of Caesarea Philippi.
This district was far north of the land of Israel, well outside the territory of King Herod and a good two days walk from the Sea of Galilee. There were no scribes or Pharisees to test him. Instead, Jesus “tests” the disciples. The two questions posed by Jesus are recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels and mark a turning point in the story of Jesus.
From this point on Jesus begins to speak of his destiny in terms of his suffering and death, rather than speaking only in terms of the coming of the kingdom of God. In asking the first question “Who do people say that the Son of Man is; Jesus must have known the answer he would get, but he wanted the disciples to say it out loud.
This tells us a good deal of how the people perceived Jesus. The answer the disciples gave was a varied one. Some said John the Baptist, at least Herod thought so. Some said Elijah. Jewish tradition expected that Elijah would return in the last days to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Some said Jeremiah, because it was he who predicted the establishment of the new covenant and Jesus’ words mirrored the language of the new covenant.
Others said one of the prophets, or the prophet. The prophet would have significance since Deut. 18.15-22 promised God would send one greater than Moses. Upon hearing the disciple’s answers of his first question, Jesus then asks ‘But who do you say that I am?”
It is the greatest question a person can ever face, for it is the question that defines Christianity. Peter takes on the role as spokesman, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Obviously some of the things that Jesus had been doing (miracles) and saying had puzzled the disciples up to this point with a perplexity that would only be resolved after the resurrection. What Peter is saying here was that Jesus was the true king. That he was the one that Israel had been waiting for. That he was the one the Psalms and Prophets had predicted.
Peter’s response was a divine illumination of the moment; a God-given answer. However, we see just a few verses later when Jesus announces his death in Jerusalem that Peter reverts to a very human response. Here, however, Jesus seems to reward him by giving him the name “rock.”
On this “rock” Jesus says, he will build his church. The ‘rock” refers not to Peter per se, but to the faith of his confession. The true rock is Christ himself. The faith of Peter expressed in his confession of Christ as the Son of the living God would be and is the foundation for Christ’ new community - the Church.
That is what Jesus came to build, a community consisting of all of those who would give their allegiance to him as God’s anointed. Peter’ reply, then, affirms two great truths concerning Jesus - his divine son ship and his messiah ship. The “rock” the church is built on is Peter’s faith in both.
Peter still has much to learn, as do, all of the Apostles, but this is part of the process of becoming what God intended for them to be. After all, Jesus’ new community consists of forgiven sinners. God has led Peter to faith through his experience of the lord. Peter has a place in the purpose of God.
And the purpose comes next in the text. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The Jewish rabbis of Jesus’ day had the power to pronounce what was forbidden and what was permitted according to the Law of Moses. They did not have the power to add to it or subtract from it. These decisions, according to Jewish tradition, were acknowledged in heaven.
The power of the Church to bind and loose is a power to interpret the law of Christ, and likewise not a power to add to it or subtract from it. The “keys” Jesus is giving to Peter and ultimately to the rest of the Apostles, is the authority to “teach” and discipline the new community that would spring up after Pentecost.
At Pentecost, all of the Apostles would be empowered as stewards of the mysteries of God, becoming scribes of the kingdom, with the power to interpret God’s will in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our answer, then, to the question of Jesus “who do you say that I am,” marks a turning point in our lives. Through the gift of faith we proclaim Christ as the Son of the living God. Our eyes are opened to the discovery that each of us has a place in God’s purpose in bringing salvation to the world.
The world we live in today is a dark and scary place. The international scene is filled with wars and rumors of war. Extremists in the name of religion carry out destructive acts that claim both life and property. On the home front, our country is sorely divided both politically and socially to the point that we stand on the verge of imploding. Right thinking, sanity, and justice need to prevail in the wake of hatred, distrust, and disrespect.
Yet it would appear as if our Christian witness has been silenced. Jesus’ question is a test of our faith. Where is the Christian witness today? Why don’t all who profess faith that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God stand up for peace?
Isaiah warns in the first lesson that one day the heavens will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment. Need we remind ourselves that we are living between Advents? We are in a waiting period.
However, our waiting is not to be one of inactivity but one of witnessing to the saving grace and love of God in Christ. Thus, St. Paul exhorts us in his letter to the church at Rome not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God - what is good, acceptable and perfect, and then do it.
Jesus came to build a community of faith. He willingly gave His life on the hardwood of the cross that it might continue to grow. He sent the gift of the Holy Spirit, not only to unify us as members of His Body the Church in our profession and witness of our faith in Him both as our Lord and the One whom God has sent to bring salvation to all, but more importantly to have the courage to proclaim Him as such.
Pray then that God will grant us His grace that we might fulfill our place in His divine purpose by showing forth the power of His Love among all peoples, to the Glory of His name, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN+